Every once in a while a visitor to our website shares a remedy that surprises and delights us even if we can’t find any scientific support for it. Then along comes extraordinary research from highly respected scientists that confirms something really is going on that might explain the home remedy. That happened this week in San Francisco when Harvard researchers reported on the likely cause for brain freeze by using sophisticated intracranial doppler devices to track blood flow within the brain. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
About a year ago we received the following story:
Q. I know when my burning headaches go all day it’s because the weather has gone from too hot to too cold at the snap of my fingers. Or rain is on the way within the next day or two. But after popping pain pills all day with no relief, why does eating spoonfuls of chocolate peanut butter ice cream take the pain right away?
We answered with some information about brain freeze:
A. We have no idea why chocolate peanut butter ice cream helps your headaches, but we can’t think of a tastier treatment.
Some people actually develop something called ice-cream headaches if they eat very cold food too fast. Also known as brain freeze, doctors call this pain sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It means that nerves in the roof of the mouth have been overwhelmed by the cold.
Not long after we published this question and answer in our syndicated newspaper column and on this website we began hearing from other migraine sufferers who found that inducing brain freeze can stop a migraine:
“I absolutely get relief from my migraines from ice cream. Starbucks Frappucinos® are as good or better. It can actually cure my migraine if I catch it early enough sometimes.”
“Every few months I wake up with a headache that makes me ill for about five days. The headache gets progressively worse and by the third day there is no comfortable position. I have to sit in a hot shower. Nothing relieves the pain, although cold medicines help me sleep despite the nagging headache in the background.
“Last week, I woke up with the headache. On the second day I suddenly craved some ice cream cones called ‘Drumsticks.’ I bought a box of them, and the second I bit into the ice cream, my headache went away. I was afraid the relief might be temporary, but it never came back. I did not progress through the usual illness.
“My personal theory is it is the cold that works. I am going to try just plain ice on the roof of my mouth the next time I get one of these headaches, but I’ll gladly eat ice cream if ice alone doesn’t work.”
“I noticed that my migraines seemed to get better after eating ice cream. I used to suffer in the dark after taking numerous painkillers with no results. Ice packs helped a little but then the ice cream connection was made. My daughters unfortunately inherited this condition and we all now have a dose of what we now call ‘ice cream therapy.’
“I am a nurse and wonder if this has ever been researched. I theorize that this breaks the spasms of blood vessels in the brain by maybe acting on the blood vessels of the mouth and tongue. I loved reading that others have made this same connection.”
One physician (Dr. John) commented that,
“The cold may have an effect on the nerve ganglia above the roof of the mouth and at the back of the mouth near the molar teeth. The effects may cause a vasoconstriction of the cranial blood vessels and thus relieve the vascular pain associated with migrainous vasodilatation.”
That’s what we love about The People’s Pharmacy® community of contributors. Not only do people share amazing stories, but health professionals chime in too, frequently with plausible explanations.
This week, a team of scientists presented fascinating data at the Experimental Biology 2012 conference in San Francisco. Lead investigator Jorge Serrador of Harvard Medical School explained that brain freeze occurs when blood vessels above the roof of the mouth rapidly dilate and then constrict. The report was titled, “Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During ‘Brain Freeze.'”
In this study, volunteers sipped ice water while Doppler devices carefully measured blood flow in the brain. The subjects signaled when they experienced the pain of brain freeze. This corresponded to the sudden dilation of the anterior cerebral artery. As soon as the artery constricted, the pain disappeared. On another occasion the same volunteers sipped room-temperature water for the control experiment.
The researchers suggest that arterial dilation occurs to protect the brain from extreme cold; then, because the increased blood within the skull causes pain, the arteries constrict. They did not make the connection between brain freeze and stopping migraines. They did suggest, however, that learning how brain freeze works could lead to better medicines for migraines.
We don’t know whether eating ice cream or sipping ice water would be helpful for those who suffer severe headaches or whether it has risks. Visitors to this website have shared some amazing stories like the ones you have read above. Here are some links to other Q&As and comments.
Some people suggest that inducing brain freeze early, before a headache sets in too strongly, the better it works. Of course we can’t make any guarantees about how well this remedy will work for any given individual. Compared to most prescription and OTC headache medicine, ice cream, ice water, Slushies® or Frappucinos® seem to have few side effects and are fairly inexpensive. That does not mean brain freeze is safe for everyone. When in doubt, ask your doctor.
For more traditional headache remedies you may find our Guide to Headaches & Migraines helpful. There are several other non-drug approaches that are sometimes beneficial.
If you try ice cream for your headache pain, please let us know whether it works for you. Share your comments below.